By Mpofu Sthandile 

Leading marine researchers and scientists caution that it’s make-or-break for Africa’s governments to enact and enforce ocean policies.

Marine experts from around the world met in Gqeberha, South Africa, for a week in October for a symposium on the importance of cutting-edge science and innovation in underpinning marine conservation policy decisions in Africa.

Africa’s foremost meeting of minds in marine science, the 12th Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) Scientific Symposium drew 1 000 delegates – many representing key policy influencers from 33 countries across the continent. Presentations and discussions contributed to the global conversations around sustainable development, the blue economy, and a circular economy, particularly for plastics.

Such was its significance that the United Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development endorsed the symposium as an official UN Ocean Decade action.

“Our strategy seeks to broaden the scope of marine scientific solutions,” outgoing WIOMSA president Dr Jacqueline Uku told delegates. 

“We believe that good science can be accomplished by our scientists collaborating across disciplines and cocreating knowledge across borders, across boundaries using inclusive models that fully understand and reach local contexts.”

Uku said women and young scientists, in particular, would play an essential role in driving cross-sector collaboration when it came to research and policymaking. She said the knowledge, ideas and insights shared at the symposium would feed into global processes, providing a uniquely African perspective that ultimately would benefit the planet as a whole.

“We [as a continent] have so many solutions to offer. Researchers have spent much time looking into the issues of marine pollution and the blue economy and looking at the challenges that exist in that space, as well as the solutions that are relevant to us in this region,” Uku said, adding that there was an opportunity to “share the results of our ongoing work and voice the challenges that we see globally, not just regionally or nationally”.

“A great deal of litter comes to our shores from other countries, so we can raise awareness that conservation has to be a joint effort and that the seas connect us all.”  

Titled “A New Decade of Western Indian Ocean Science”, the symposium drew inspiration from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the Decade of Ocean Restoration, as well as goals specific to the various regions. The UN Ocean Decade Africa Booklet was also launched at the event.

WIOMSA Executive Secretary Dr Arthur Tuda said it was make-or-break when it came to the preservation of Africa’s oceans.

“The symposium has been recognised at a global level as a very important activity that contributes to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, [which is to say] we need to establish the science that we need for the oceans that we want in Africa,” said Tuda, adding there was a need to “understand the ocean better”.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2021 to 2030 the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, to support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health and “ensure ocean science can fully support countries in creating improved conditions for sustainable development of the ocean”.

“The UN Ocean Decade is important because the actions we’re going to take [now] will determine the state of the oceans that we will have after 2030,” said Tuda. 

Dr Mika Odido, Technical Secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in Africa, said the oceans represented the next frontier for development on the continent.

“The UN Ocean Decade provides an opportunity to enable us to understand the oceans and utilise them better to satisfy the requirements of mankind while also addressing the challenges facing us,” he said.

Fellow keynote speaker Professor Raimund Bleischwitz said that Africa’s ocean economy could offer “nature-based solutions that focus on the protection of coral reefs”.

In his address to delegates, Bleischwitz – former Sustainable Global Resources chair at University College London – said the vastness of Africa’s oceans “made it possible to restore coral reefs while simultaneously developing new energy sources”.

“I would pledge for more offshore wind energy as a long-term solution, which will help developing countries in their energy needs,” he said. “When you look at the construction itself, it’s fascinating that coral reefs emerge around offshore wind energy projects. I look at this as a case for industrial symbiosis.”

Another keynote speaker, African Circular Economy Network director Chris Whyte, stressed the importance of unity and engagements across sectors “to get people to understand the impacts and influences in one sector are going to have either a positive or negative influence on the next sector”.  

“We need to change the narrative to talking about unutilised resources from waste streams. Everything can be recycled,” Whyte said.

According to speaker Professor Kerry Sink, Marine Programme Manager at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, expanding marine protected areas in Africa was an important part of the equation.

While the expansion was in line with the ocean economy needs, Sink added that a much broader diversity of spatial management measures would also be implemented.

“Collaboration is key to agreed, well-focused priority actions,” Sink said. 

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